Saturday, April 19, 2014

Skiing progress (Alex; me)

Alex, visiting us for the Easter, brings his unique gastronomy. In three days he has eaten his way through two whole packets of Waitrose ginger cookies (150 calories per biscuit) and thinks nothing of munching through three crisp packets or devouring multiple choc-ices in fifteen minutes; he still weighs less than me.

On Wednesday the three of us (Alex, Adrian, myself) made our second visit of the week to the Mendip Snowsport Centre. A. and A. were going to try snowboarding for the first time there; I eschew any sport where you wear your cap back to front.

They had fixed a leak in the sprinkler system and in the afternoon sunlight, a fairyland of water fountains bathed the slope: it made the surface an ice-rink. I immediately found my skis had almost no purchase: my turns didn't grip and I was spinning round so much I'd finish facing up the slope and then slide backwards (help!). By the time I had gingerly made my way down to the end of the second slope I was terrified. The bottom (training) slope was crowded with beginners erratically snow-ploughing. All hope gone, I slid sideways on my skis slowly to the bottom. Normally you can't get the skis to slide sideways .. that day it was easy.

As I arrived at the bottom Adrian looked on with concern: "Was the crash very bad?"  Admitting my new-found incompetence somehow felt worse. It took an hour to adjust my technique to the point where I could finally make a top-to-bottom descent (hurrah!) and then it was straight off for a hot chocolate ("Gonna quit while I'm ahead"). I have to report that no-one else seemed to be having the slightest difficulty, and that Alex did just fine on the snowboard (Adrian was super-expert, in full instructor-mode).

Yesterday we returned to skis. The sprinklers were off and the course satisfyingly dry. A few runs had my confidence back and here are some videos: Alex and me.

(We're going to try the Skiplex system in Reading in a couple of weeks time).

Monday, April 14, 2014

Slugs ...

The cat approaches the alien nest ...

The vile creature hatch their plans for world domination ...

I for one welcome our new alien overlords ..

Sunday, April 13, 2014

"A Talent for War" - Jack McDevitt

'Literary Science Fiction is sooo boring!'

There's just a little truth in this proposition, especially if your internal dials have been set by John Ringo. But relentless, shoot-em-up action palls after the second or third volume in the series and you begin to hanker after more intelligent, considered writing, which challenges you to reflect rather than just react.

"A Talent for War" indeed rewards thought. The plot is intricate, unveiled through back-story by unreliable narrators. Here's a summary from the Wikipedia article.
"A Talent for War is a science fiction and mystery novel by Jack McDevitt, the story of a search by Alex Benedict, the protagonist, to discover the nature of a mysterious project Alex's uncle had been working on at the time of his death. This investigation leads deep into the history of a war between human civilization and a neighboring alien civilization and challenges the foundation mythos of the current human government."
Critic John Clute observed that the author "wrestles valiantly with the task he has set himself: that of imposing an essentially contemplative structure upon conventions designed for violent action. He comes, at times, close to success."

The story consciously revisits the epic struggle of King Leonidas and the 300 at Thermopylae. I enjoyed it a lot and therefore decided to get the next in the series, "Polaris".

A novel of similar style is the intriguing "A Bridge of Years" by Robert Charles Wilson.

I also finished up the second of the Sprawl trilogy, "Count Zero" by William Gibson - another novel with complex plotting and a deeply-imagined hinterland. Naturally I now have to hand the final volume, "Mona Lisa Overdrive".

Friday, April 11, 2014


First warm day today, a pathetic excuse really to break out the summer gear. Your author is 11 stone 2 this morning, so just as well it's a fast day (not too mention skiing and gym this morning!).

Hunger is fat leaving the body

Ski Friday

Wednesday I crashed again. The details don't matter of course: travelling too slowly, weight too far back, the ski jams and it's the famous downslope wipe-out. The snowboarding instructor asked if I was OK and I gave him the thumbs up. The only real damage was where I'd fallen on the pole handle, and that was just a rib-bruise.

They know me now at the Mendip Snowsport Centre. As I walked up the steps to reception this morning a bearded instructor clocked my presence and casually greeted me by name. Later, at the button lift, a young woman instructor smiled and asked whether I planned to crash today. I replied I was trying to restrict myself to one crash per week; she smiled knowingly.

Today felt good, to be honest. The skis were moving smoothly and I was getting in the turns even when technique wobbled. If you didn't know much about skiing and saw me coming down, you might even be impressed, although surprised at how slow and hesitant I can be. The way I figure it, technique is the thing. Get the turns right and locked in, then think about speeding up.

The slope opens at 9.30 am and that was when I arrived, all booted up, with helmet, skis and poles. I was surprised to see three skiers already at the lift - normally it's pretty quiet at that time. It turned out they were Level 1 Ski Instructors on the staff, and they were about to be appraised by an outside assessor - a gentleman dressed all in black with a clipboard. He soon had them doing novice-type stuff like snow-ploughing down from the first lift-bump, directing them left or right and making cryptic notes on his board.

I was initially under the misapprehension that he was training them and, after a while, I took the opportunity (as his charges queued for the lift)  to cheekily ask him for any hints for improving my own performance. He took pity on my naivety and gently explained that he was actually conducting an exam.

 I promised to get out of his hair and on my next descent slid across to the exit. It all looked stressful enough without a random punter sliding erratically into the centre of things at random intervals.

Here's a video showing a descent of mine a week ago, taken by Adrian.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Gloucester Mini Break

A short break to see the sights around Gloucester. We started with the old docks (Gloucester Quays - sorry, boat trips only available Sundays) and then moved on to our hotel (Mercure Gloucester, Bowden Hall Hotel "Your bathroom fan doesn't work? Sorry, it only comes on in the mornings and after 6 pm" .. er, no actually, it was broken and this was the second room we were offered where the fan didn't work).

Gloucester at first sight looks like many small English towns: way too many pound shops and betting parlours; the odd drunk hollering from a bench; badly-mixed architecture - some concrete-hideous which only Jonathan Meades could love; a general air of shabbiness. However, there were positive signs: some decent new houses going up adjacent to the town centre and some signs of middle-class colonisation. Perhaps the direction is up.

The next day we drove to Chedworth Roman Villa (which we had in fact visited before), then proceeding to Chastleton House near Chipping Norton. In fact we had a sparse lunch in Chipping Norton, looking out for Jeremy Clarkson's house (surely a blue plaque?) and wondering if we'd see any evidence of David Cameron or other denizens of the 'Chipping Norton set' (badgers?). It all looked quite ordinary though, albeit more prosperous than Gloucester.

Chastlelton House is a Jacobean country house which apparently needed a fortune every generation to keep intact. Such fortunes not being in evidence, it failed to upgrade over the centuries and thus preserves its original appearance and furnishings as they were in Shakespeare's time - what a gem!

Back to Gloucester then for the Museum and The New Inn, an Elizabethan Coaching Inn on the Northgate where standards of service have not much advanced ("Earl Grey tea? Sorry, we do do fruit infusions.")

This morning we returned via the pretty "Westbury Court Garden" - a water garden rescued from terminal decline by the National Trust. Smug and twee it may be, but such good work has to be done Mr A. A. Gill! 

Here are some pix - eat your heart out, dear reader!

Clare at Gloucester Quays

The author at Gloucester Quays

Clare gets down with the sheep at Chastleton House

Our hotel - the breakfast was quite good

Chastleton House - a Jacobean Manor (NT)

The Water Garden at Westbury Court (NT)